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Village Detective: a song cycle, The
The documentarian-poet of the nitrate film archives is back!
Bill Morrison, whose recent masterpiece Dawson City: Frozen Time explored the riches of a cache of forgotten film unearthed from the Yukon permafrost, returns with another (slighter) discovery. The Village Detective: A Song Cycle concerns four relatively well-preserved reels of film dredged up from the ocean floor by Icelandic fishermen. The contents of those reels are The Village Detective, a middling late-'60s comic mystery from the Soviet Union which starred one of the USSR's greatest film legends, Mikhail Zharov.
Although the contents of these reels are far from the earth-shattering revelations of the Dawson City find, Morrison decides to do his own detective work into the career of Zharov and into the Soviet film industry. He counterpoints his investigations with excerpts from the film print, as Zharov's character does his investigation into a fancy accordion which has gone missing.
Morrison shows us a few clips of The Village Detective at regular speed, to get a sense of the style and story, but mostly he slows down the footage so we can appreciate the unique and oddly hypnotic ways in which the film emulsion has degraded in the deep.
The fact that Morrison is able to provide subtitles for all the dialogue in these scenes as they unspool is foreshadowing for the inevitable revelation that The Village Detective is an extremely common film and frequent Russian TV staple. There's nothing rare about the film generally, which maybe explains why Morrison elongates and emphasizes the idiosyncrasies of this particular print, à la his film Decasia.
As he goes through numerous examples of Zharov's screen work, Morrison shows us a promising young artist, a cheeky movie star, a distinguished older actor, and eventually a washed-up hack. A Russian film archivist who is interviewed in the film diagnoses Zharov as an actor who needed a strong director, and Morrison dutifully presents footage of Zharov fully engaged in Sergi Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Part II.
Morrison offers a playful montage pinpointing the object of interest from the detective film -- the accordion -- as it appears in Zharov's other films. Most strikingly, we see Zharov as a younger man, playing the accordion himself and singing. Morrison notes that Zharov is credited as the first performer to sing in Russian on film.
Like the discovery it documents, The Village Detective: A Song Cycle is fairly minor in its creator's filmography. Bill Morrison crafts such unique work that this film still qualifies as a must-see, but its pleasure might be better suited to folks who have already savored his earlier work.
For what Morrison is going for, this AVC-encoded 1080p 1.78:1 presentation is spot-on. No noticeable digital encoding issues, and the digitally shot doc elements look clean and balanced. The film footage is obviously variable, with the clips from The Village Detective showing heavy damage and distortion that becomes its own kind of abstract animation.
The audio is offered in both DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround and DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo options that crisp and satisfying. The languages spoken are a mixture of Russian and English. The Russian dialogue is subtitled with burned-in titles, in the same font as size as the other titles Morrison uses throughout the film. An English SDH track covers the English dialogue and has (thankfully) sparing references to the music cues. David Lang's music score is treated most differently in the surround or stereo mixes, although Morrison has created an idiosyncratic sound design to compliment the wear and damage present on the silent film footage.
(HD, 33:41 total) - Three recent films by Bill Morrison, each glorious in its own idiosyncratic way. Buried News utilizes footage from newsreels in the Dawson City find to highlight incidents of racial violence and riots in the U.S. during the late 1910's. let me come in marries decomposing footage of a silent German melodrama with an operatic rendering of excerpts from the Song of Songs. Sunken Films examines the sinking of the Lusitania through the use of different vintage film excerpts and also discusses film footage discovered in shipwrecks like the Lusitania.
The Village Detective: A Song Cycle is a more modest film than Bill Morrison's masterful previous feature, Dawson City: Frozen Time, but it offers another gloriously idiosyncratic rumination on the nature of film as a physical object. Morrison's twin investigations into the life of the star of his discovered Soviet film and into the life of the actual film material itself is more glorious catnip for the movie-mad. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.